Last updated

Toas are small composite and painted artifacts made by members of the Diyari and collected by Lutheran Missionary Johann Reuther at the Killalpaninna Mission in South Australia beginning in 1904.

The Diyari, alternatively transcribed as Dieri, is an Indigenous Australian group and language of the South Australian desert originating in and around the delta of Cooper Creek to the east of Lake Eyre.

Killalpaninna Mission was a Lutheran Aboriginal mission in far northeast South Australia. It existed from 1866 to 1915.

Reuther claimed they were used as 'signposts' on vacating a camp to tell those following where they had gone. Each toas thus represented a particular place, by way of its carved shape and painted detail. In 1906 Reuther retired from the mission and sold 385 toas to the South Australian Museum (images of toas) for £400. They probably have more in common with 'marker pegs' than message sticks.

Message stick

A message stick is a form of communication traditionally used by Indigenous Australians. It is usually a solid piece of wood, around 20–30cm in length, etched with angular lines and dots.

The toas combined Aboriginal and European technologies and were made within a frontier context at the mission. They often used gypsum as substrate for painting and incorporating object such as shells, gypsum paste also hid European methods of joining pieces of wood which provided the armature. Gypsum was often used in Aboriginal mourning ceremonies.

While there is no doubt the manufacture and form of the toas are Aboriginal and that they mythologically encode place names, it is suggested that they were made at the mission in response to an easy supply of surplus gypsum and the active interest of an inquiring German missionary. As such they are now regarded as precursors of the Western Desert Painting Movement.

Papunya Tula, or Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd, is an artist cooperative formed in 1972 that is owned and operated by Aboriginal people from the Western Desert of Australia. The group is known for its innovative work with the Western Desert Art Movement, popularly referred to as "dot painting". Credited with bringing Aboriginal art to world attention, its artists inspired many other Australian Aboriginal artists and styles. The company operates today out of Alice Springs and is widely regarded as the premier purveyor of Aboriginal art in Central Australia.

The origin of the word toas for these objects is probably an idiosyncratic usage by Reuther, perhaps in a mission pidgin, extending terms (from the Bilatapa language as well as of Diyari) which imply burying, covering up, inserting, or sticking into the ground.

Less generous commentators have said that Reuther was just setting himself up with an exit fund by supplying authentic Aboriginal artefacts to an under-supplied market.

The names of those who may have had a role in producing the toas are Petrus or Peter Pinnaru, Emil Kintalakadi, Elias Palkalinna (Diari), Elisha Tjerkalina (Diari), Andreas Dibana, Johannes Pingilina (Diari), Moses (Tirari), Titus (Diari) and Joseph Ngantajlina (Diari Lake Hope).

A contemporary artist re-envisioning [1] the toas is Irene Kemp.

Related Research Articles

Oil painting process of painting with pigments that are bound with a medium of drying oil

Oil painting is the process of painting with pigments with a medium of drying oil as the binder. Commonly used drying oils include linseed oil, poppy seed oil, walnut oil, and safflower oil. The choice of oil imparts a range of properties to the oil paint, such as the amount of yellowing or drying time. Certain differences, depending on the oil, are also visible in the sheen of the paints. An artist might use several different oils in the same painting depending on specific pigments and effects desired. The paints themselves also develop a particular consistency depending on the medium. The oil may be boiled with a resin, such as pine resin or frankincense, to create a varnish prized for its body and gloss.


The Wandjina are cloud and rain spirits from Australian Aboriginal mythology that are depicted prominently in rock art in Australia. Some of the artwork in the Kimberley region of Western Australia dates back approximately 4,000 years ago.

Indigenous Australian art art made by the indigenous peoples of Australia

Indigenous Australian art or Australian Aboriginal art is art made by the Indigenous peoples of Australia and in collaborations between Indigenous Australians and others. It includes works in a wide range of media including painting on leaves, wood carving, rock carving, sculpting, ceremonial clothing and sand painting. This article discusses works that pre-date European colonisation as well as contemporary Indigenous Australian art by Aboriginal Australians. These have been studied in recent years and have gained much international recognition.

Bradshaw rock paintings

The Gwion Gwion paintings, Bradshaw rock paintings, Bradshaw rock art, Bradshaw figures or The Bradshaws, are terms used to describe one of the two major regional traditions of rock art found in the north-west Kimberley region of Western Australia. The identity of who painted these figures and the age of the art are contended within archaeology and amongst Australian rock art researchers. These aspects have been debated since the works were first discovered and recorded by pastoralist Joseph Bradshaw in 1891, after whom they were named. As the Kimberley is home to various Aboriginal language groups, the rock art is referred to and known by many different Aboriginal names, the most common of which are Gwion Gwion or Giro Giro. The art consists primarily of human figures ornamented with accessories such as bags, tassels and headdresses.

Hermannsburg, Northern Territory Town in the Northern Territory, Australia

Hermannsburg is an Aboriginal community in Ljirapinta Ward of the MacDonnell Shire in the Northern Territory of Australia, 125 km km west southwest of Alice Springs. Local Aboriginal people call it Ntaria.

Snuff bottle

Snuff bottles were used by the Chinese, Mongolians during the Qing Dynasty to contain powdered tobacco. Smoking tobacco was illegal during the Qing Dynasty, but the use of snuff was allowed because the Chinese considered snuff to be a remedy for common illnesses such as colds, headaches and stomach disorders. Therefore, snuff was carried in a small bottle like other medicines. The snuff bottle replaced the snuff box used by Europeans.

Spinifex people or Pila Nguru, an Australian tribe, named after Triodia

The Pila Nguru, often referred to in English as the Spinifex people, are an Indigenous Australian people of Western Australia, whose lands extend to the border with South Australia and to the north of the Nullarbor Plain. The centre of their homeland is in the Great Victoria Desert, at Tjuntjunjarra, some 700 kilometres east of Kalgoorlie, perhaps the remotest community in Australia. The Pila Nguru were the last Australian tribe to have dropped the complete trappings of their traditional aboriginal lifestyle.

Bark painting

Bark painting is an Australian Aboriginal art form, involving painting on the interior of a strip of tree bark. This is a continuing form of artistic expression in Arnhem Land and other regions in the Top End of Australia including parts of the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Traditionally, bark paintings were produced for instructional and ceremonial purposes and were transient objects. Today, they are keenly sought after by collectors and public arts institutions.

Carl Friedrich Theodor Strehlow was an anthropologist, and genealogist that served on two Lutheran missions in inland Australia from May 1892 to October 1922, a total of thirty years. He was at the first mission station, Killalpaninna, from 1892 to 1894, and the second, Hermannsburg, eighty miles west of Alice Springs, from 1894 to 1922, first as teacher and, from 1901 onwards, manager, and it is for his work here that he is mostly known today. Strehlow was ably assisted and supported by his wife Friederike Johanna Henriette Keysser, who played the central role in reducing the high infant mortality which threatened Aboriginal communities all over Australia after the onset of white settlement. It is probable that Hermannsburg was the only Mission in Australia at the start of the twentieth century where the population was growing through natural increase. As a polymath with an interest in natural history, through his Aranda informants Strehlow provided plant and animal specimens to museums in Germany and Australia, a number of which first came to scientific notice through his collecting. This was the outcome of his collaboration with Moritz, Baron von Leonhardi of Gross Karben in Hessen, Germany, who also suggested he write his monumental anthropological work Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme in Zentral-Australien. With Leonhardi as editor this work became the first publication of the newly founded Städtisches Völkermuseum of Frankfurt am Main, appearing in eight parts between 1907 and 1920. Strehlow sent what was said to be the best collection in the world of Aboriginal artefacts – both sacred and secular – to Frankfurt, unfortunately largely destroyed in the bombing of the city in World War Two, though some fine pieces remain. Due to Leonhardi's sudden death in 1910, Strehlow's linguistic researches intended as part of Die Aranda- und Loritja-Stämme were never published, though used in manuscript form by his son Theodor George Henry Strehlow and later Hermannsburg missionaries. Strehlow also collaborated on the pioneering first complete translation of the New Testament into an Aboriginal language (Dieri), published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1897, and he later translated the New Testament into Aranda, parts of which were published after his death. He also produced a reader and service book in the latter language. Falling ill with dropsy in September 1922, he tried to reach a doctor but died at Horseshoe Bend halfway between Alice Springs and Oodnadatta, leaving Frieda and fourteen-year-old son Theodor to continue south to Adelaide without him. Professor TGH Strehlow, who is better known than Carl, built his scholarly career in part on the researches carried out by his father.

The Hermannsburg School is an art movement, or art style, which began at the Hermannsburg Mission in the 1930s. The best known artist of the style is Albert Namatjira. The movement is characterised by watercolours of western-style landscapes that depict the often striking colours of the Australian outback.

History of Indigenous Australians

The History of Indigenous Australians began at least 65,000 years ago when humans first populated Australia.

Lucy Napaljarri Kennedy AM is a Walpiri and Anmatyerre-speaking Indigenous artist from Australia's Western Desert region. One of the first Indigenous women artists to paint in acrylics, her work has been exhibited at major galleries around Australia, and is held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1994 for services to the Yuendumu community.

Aboriginal sites of Victoria

Aboriginal sites of Victoria form an important record of human occupation for probably more than 40,000 years. They may be identified from archaeological remains, historical and ethnographic information or continuing oral traditions and encompass places where rituals and ceremonies were performed, occupation sites where people ate, slept and carried out their day to day chores, and ephemeral evidence of people passing through the landscape, such as a discarded axe head or isolated artefact.

The Aboriginal People of South Australia are the aboriginal people who lived in South Australia prior to European colonization of Australia: their descendants and their ancestors. There is much debate and controversy in identifying the names, territorial boundaries, and language groups of the Aboriginal peoples of South Australia. Post-colonial history is also dogged by poor record keeping and deliberate obfuscation. This article should be taken as a rough guide only about the Aboriginal People.

Eileen Yaritja Stevens was an Aboriginal artist from central Australia. Although she had brief career of less than four years, she quickly became one of the most successful artists of her generation to paint in the style of the Western Desert. Her work is now held in several major public art collections across Australia.

Taroom Aboriginal Settlement Aboriginal reserve at Bundulla, Taroom, Shire of Banana, Queensland, Australia

Taroom Aboriginal Settlement is a heritage-listed Aboriginal reserve at Bundulla, Taroom, Shire of Banana, Queensland, Australia. It was added to the Queensland Heritage Register on 13 May 2011. It is also known as Taroom Aboriginal Reserve and Taroom Aboriginal Mission.

Madjedbebe Ancient rock shelter in the Northern Territory of Australia

Madjedbebe is a sandstone rockshelter in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory of Australia. It is located about 50 km from the coast, in the Traditional Lands of the Mirarr people. Although it is surrounded by the World Heritage Listed Kakadu National Park, Madjedbebe itself is located within the Jabiluka Mineral Leasehold. Archaeological excavations have led researchers to suggest that Madjedbebe was first occupied by humans around 65,000 years ago. This is the oldest known site showing the presence of humans in Australia. This date sets a new minimum age for the arrival of humans in Australia, the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa and the subsequent interactions of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans. More than 10,000 artefacts have been excavated from the shelter, including flaked stone artefacts, ground stone artefacts, animal bones, shellfish remains, fragments of ground ochre, charcoal, seeds and human burials. Some of these were buried more than 2.5 metres below the surface. Archaeobotanical investigations have demonstrated a clear exploitation of plant foods, including: seeds, tubers and pandanus nuts. Fuel wood was also sourced from a local eucalyptus and moonson vine thicket forest.

Wellington Convict and Mission Site

The Wellington Convict and Mission Site is an heritage-listed former convict agricultural station, Australian Aboriginal mission and cemetery located at Curtis Street, Wellington in the Dubbo Regional Council local government area in New South Wales, Australia. It was built between 1823 and 1844. It is also known as Wellington Convict and Mission Site - Maynggu Ganai, Wellington Valley Settlement, Wellington Aboriginal Mission and Government Farm Site. The property was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 22 March 2011.

La Perouse Mission Church Church in New South Wales, Australia

The La Perouse Mission Church is a heritage-listed former church building and now vacant building and unused church located at 46 Adina Avenue, La Perouse, City of Randwick, New South Wales, Australia. It was built from 1894 to 1930. It is also known as Colebrook Memorial Aboriginal Evangelical Church. The property is owned by La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council. It was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 15 March 2013.


Jones, Phillip G. (2007). Ochre and rust : artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers Kent Town, S. Aust., Wakefield Press. ISBN   978-1-86254-585-4

International Standard Book Number Unique numeric book identifier

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a numeric commercial book identifier which is intended to be unique. Publishers purchase ISBNs from an affiliate of the International ISBN Agency.